My first year as an entrepreneur: lessons from survival

I almost lost everything my first year as an entrepreneur. But, in the process, I did gain something even more valuable than money. Experience.

I tell the story of my first year in a previous article, but I’ll summarize here. I didn’t have any income for over three months and decided to radically cut my spending to a dollar a day outside of rent and gas for my car. The girl I moved to San Diego for told me to get a “real job,” and, sadly, I tried. But, I failed to find one and had to continue on my path, which looked like it was heading towards bankruptcy. Then, I spent a few more months waiting for a miracle to happen. Eventually, one did, and I won the largest project that I would have for the next two years.

From that time, I learned a lot about myself and starting a business. Here are five key lessons.

Listen inward.

Everyone has an inner voice or gut feeling. It tells us to follow our dreams. It shows us the work we love. It beckons us to listen.

There are some who do, and then there are many who don’t. We often listen to voices outside of that inner voice. And, we end up living a life that other people want us to live.

My gut was telling me to start a business. I knew that it is not rational to do it. After seeing the statistics, I realized the probability of failure far outweighed success.

But, I did it because that’s what I felt I should do. It’s what my inner voice was calling me to do. I had to listen.

Then, I ran into trouble. It looked like failure was imminent for me. That was when I heard the words “get a real job” from a key person in my life at the time. Those words combined with the fear I was experiencing packed a one-two punch that crushed my resolve.

I should have never listened to that advice. It was taking me completely off of the path that I wanted to walk. But, that’s not how the mind works. We crave certainty.

When money or any other important resource become scarce, we don’t function rationally. Desperation sets in. Then we start hunting for anything that feels solid on which to stand. I was no different.

However, I was lucky. I failed in finding a job. Ironically, failing at getting a job gave me the time to succeed as an entrepreneur.

People will always have all kinds of ideas for your life. They mean well of course. But, stop listening to all of those voices. Listen to your gut. What has it been telling you?

Stop wasting time.

People say that time is money. The fact is, in that season of life my time was plentiful, and it wasn’t worth much.

But, that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t have capitalized on it. I spent too much time watching TV. The purpose for me wasn’t just entertainment. I was trying to sooth myself. It was my way of self-medication against the stress.

I also did things that were productive like reading and praying. But, in hindsight, I wasted a lot of time. I should have been doing more.

We live in a world where anybody can publish content on various platforms (like Medium), and the world may see it. I should have been creating.

I could have been blogging, taking pictures and posting, starting a vlog, anything creative. Instead, I used my time to manage my stress. Ironically, I think creating work would have been a more effective distraction than any TV show.

That was one of the largest missed opportunities that I ever had. It’s something that I can’t do over again. But, those of you who are starting can learn from my mistake. Everyone should be creating and mastering a skill.

After almost a decade of leading creative companies, I started to create.

Relationships matter.

I attribute much of my early success to my first client. His name was Alistair Hanna. He took a risk on me and entrusted me to create a website for his hotel in Northern Ireland.

He gave me the start that I needed. Then he helped me win the project that I mentioned above. Ali was a friend, ally, and mentor. He invested in me and even put his reputation on the line for me when he recommended me to other potential clients.

I was just a young upstart. Ali was a retired managing partner of the world-class consulting firm McKinsey & Company. To this day, I don’t know why he helped me, outside of the fact that he was wildly generous and wanted to show a kid with a dream some mercy. I didn’t care. I was just thankful. He was one of the greatest men I ever knew. He died in 2014.

No one can do something great alone. Walt Disney had his brother Roy who helped work financial magic to fund Walt’s creative dreams. John D. Rockefeller also had a brother and many other business partners. Steve Jobs also had partners, Steve Wozniak and Mike Markkula, who helped him start Apple.

Every successful person had people helping and supporting them. In the very beginning that person for me was Ali Hanna. Without Ali, there wouldn’t be John Pa, the entrepreneur.

Find a person or a group who can be that for you. Without it, you can’t reach the potential for which you hope. Everyone reaching for greatness needs great people helping them.

Winning requires sacrifice.

I love to eat and enjoy life, but I knew what it was going to take to survive. I had to cut my spending. And, it had to be radical.

Spending a dollar a day, even outside of rent and gas sounds crazy, especially in a place like San Diego. That’s because it was crazy, but it was what I did. My singleness was the only way I could have done it. Having a family would have eliminated any possibility of me surviving that time.

Now, there are things that you say to yourself that you can’t live without — coffee, TV, going out, that vacation, etc. But, it’s not true. We don’t need any of it. We don’t need new clothes, new shoes, going out for beers.

They are just patterns and expectations that we’ve constructed in our minds that have turned into necessities. The question you should always be asking yourself is what is your goal, and what are you willing to do to get it?

You can achieve your goals. It’s just that many of us aren’t willing to do what it takes. Are you?

Success is always a moment away.

One moment you’ve subjected yourself to a dollar a day budget, the next you can win the largest customer you’ve ever had. That’s what happened to me.

Maybe you’ve been surviving for years, then all of the sudden you get media attention, land that dream client or a video goes viral. Then your company starts to grow in ways you only dreamed.

I didn’t say success is instant. It often takes years of grinding away to become successful. But, success is lying just around the corner. There is no instant gratification in success. However, it can be sudden.

That is how it often works. As an entrepreneur, you become an overnight success after you’ve slaved over your startup for years. But, it can and often does happen in a flash of a moment. You don’t have ultimate control over your destiny, but it has potential to be brighter than you’ve ever imagined.

Success is usually forged in secret, where there are no accolades, no applause, no recognition. It’s wrought by hard work, patience, grit, and sacrifice.


I’m not foolish enough to think that the season of learning is over for me. There is so much that I have to discover and too much that I want to.

I look back on my first year with fondness. That’s the odd thing about my relationship with the past. Even though it’s full of sacrifices I’ve made and pain I’ve suffered, it still seems to bring me a sense of warmth.

I never want to go back to them. But, I’m glad I went through them. They were lessons I needed to learn. Experiences that were necessary for me to grow.

As you venture into the pursuit of your dream, I hope you will learn from mine. And, hopefully, you can experience more success than I had.

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